Old Man Yang can barely contain his excitement as he tries out the Gran Turismo Sport racing video game.
The 86-year-old has hooked up a steering wheel and pedal set to his PlayStation 5, and is now fighting to keep a Volkswagen sedan from deviating from the track. As the car rolls towards the barriers, his whole body sway from side to side.
“It seems so real, look! He shouts. “Take it easy, you’ve almost hit the table,” his wife replies with a smile.
The former engineer, whose full name is Yang Binglin, has spent his career working on hydrocarbon exploration for Chinese oil companies. But since his retirement, he has found an unexpected second calling as a gaming influencer.
Several times a month, Yang uploads videos and live broadcasts of himself playing his favorite games on the Chinese video platform Bilibili. His chain, which he named “Hardcore Gamer_Old Man Yang”, Has become a cult hit on the site and now has more than 230,000 subscribers.
For his young fans, Old Man Yang is something of a novelty. They love that the octogenarian shares their passion for shooting games like Sniper and Far Cry, and enjoy watching him exchange jokes with his grandson as they play together.
“Grandpa, you are my idol,” one user commented under a recent video. “I hope I’ll be like you in 50 years,” wrote another.
But in reality, the retiree is no longer a rarity. The pandemic has sparked an explosion in the number of silver-haired gamers in China and the huge 278 billion yuan ($ 44 billion) the video game industry is starting to realize this.
As China introduced new strict limits on underage access to video games at the end of August, the over-60s market has emerged as one of the industry’s main growth engines.
There are now 45 to 57 million elderly people playing video games in China, and that number has roughly doubled since mid-2020, according to a July report. report by the Baidu Institute of Marketing (BIM). The total number of players in the country only increased by 10% during this period.
The dramatic increase in the number of new users was likely sparked by the prolonged lockdowns that hit most of China in early 2020. Millions of elderly Chinese adopted a multitude of digital services at the start of the pandemic, when grocery orders and smartphone payments have become all-but-essential.
Yang Binglin poses for a photo with his new PlayStation 5, gifted to him by Sony, 2021. Courtesy of Yang Binglin
Mobile entertainment options such as video apps and games have also seen a surge in user numbers as older people try to cope with their enforced isolation. “They get a social satisfaction from playing that feels like real interactions,” says Song Delong, owner of an elderly toy store in Beijing. “It reduces their feeling of loneliness. “
Today, about 23% of the elderly in China play mobile games, according to a report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in September. find. Most prefer Candy Crush-type Match3 games such as Anipop, with 62% of senior players reporting playing it regularly.
A 76-year-old woman from northeastern Jilin Province, nicknamed Wang, tells Sixth Tone that she plays Anipop on her phone for an hour every day. She downloaded the game after seeing her neighbors playing it and found it easier on her back than sitting around playing mahjong for hours.
“I get a sense of accomplishment when I play and I can also communicate with my neighbors and grandchildren through play,” says Wang. “But the more I play, the harder it gets and eventually it gets a bit tricky for me.”
E + / People Visual
Titles like Anipop and the Happy Farm farming simulator have become so popular among the elderly that Chinese gambling insiders have started to describe them as “passive aging games”. Although not intended for seniors, older users have become the main user base as younger players lose interest.
In the meantime, a growing number of companies are starting to develop mobile games specifically for seniors. Duan Mingjie, founder of the Beijing-based consulting firm AgeClub, says he knows several start-ups focusing on this niche.
“For the industry, we definitely think it’s a good channel to get customers,” says Duan. “Ideal mobile games not only teach them health knowledge, but also give them a sense of enjoyment, which can slow down mental decline. “
Li Hui, founder of a Shanghai-based games company, said the industry now sees older gamers as a major target market. “Right now, most of the seniors play Match3 games,” he says. “It’s also a type of game that companies are more willing to invest research and development efforts in, because it’s a mature genre. ”
Although the changes in China have been particularly dramatic, games for the elderly have increased globally in recent years. The number of players aged 55 to 64 worldwide has grown up 32% since 2018, according to a report released by market research firm Global Web Index in April.
In the United States, the trend was evident even before the pandemic. american seniors spent $ 3.5 billion in gaming hardware, content and accessories over six months in 2019, more than six times more than in 2016.
Older gamers are also playing an increasingly visible role in gaming culture in the United States, with figures like Shirley “the Gaming Grandma” Curry drawing nearly a million subscribers on YouTube. In 2020, the role-playing game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim even has added a new character in honor of the 85-year-old.
Although it is still early days, the same is now starting to happen in China. An increasing number of Chinese seniors are taking up Match3 games and playing titles traditionally popular among Chinese youth, such as Perfect World and Honor of Kings, according to BIM. And some – like Old Man Yang – are gaining a lot of followers on social media.
The closest Chinese equivalent of the game’s grandmother is a 60-year-old man known as Uncle Jifeng. Famous primarily for playing the hugely popular League of Legends fighting game, Uncle Jifeng has amassed nearly 1.2 million followers on the Chinese short video platform Douyin and even made several television appearances.
A screenshot shows Uncle Jifeng playing video games. From @ 疾风 大爷 与 刘二弟 on Huya
He has also become an unofficial spokesperson for the elderly gamer community in China. After a recent League of Legends update, Uncle Jifeng complained about the “fonts too small” and “complicated descriptions” of the new version. He admitted that he now needed his grandson’s help to play.
In a recent interview with national media, Uncle Jifeng noted it took him twice as long to adjust to a new video game when he was young. But he added that he refused to stop playing because he wanted to set an example for others.
Old Man Yang shares the same concerns. He has been playing almost every day for the past 20 years and is a talented player, but says older people often find the game more difficult than younger generations. The gaming industry often does not take older gamers into account when designing products.
“In addition to the highly technical content, there are also considerable requirements… for the configuration of electronic devices used by the elderly,” he says. “Also, there is a lot of English in the games, so I need to know a bit of English to play too.”
A screenshot shows Yang Binglin playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt video game. From Bilibili
But Yang doesn’t intend to stop either. He loves the way the game keeps him mentally and physically active. And he enjoys sharing his passion with his fans on Bilibili, which he says helps him keep “a young heart”.
In another recent clip, Yang leans back in his chair while playing Resident Evil 8. As he effortlessly slaughters zombie after zombie, he shares gameplay tips in his Sichuan dialect. His fans react with wonder.
“My classmates in their twenties don’t dare to play this game,” comments one user. “Grandpa Yang is really very powerful.”
Publisher: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Yang Binglin plays a racing video game at home, 2021. Courtesy of Yang Binglin)